Stanley Karnow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and journalist who produced acclaimed books and television documentaries about Vietnam and the Philippines in the throes of war and upheaval, died Sunday at his home in Potomac, Md. He was 87. The cause was congestive heart failure, said Karnow’s son, Michael.
For more than three decades, Karnow was a correspondent in Southeast Asia, working for Time, Life, The Saturday Evening Post, The Washington Post, NBC News, The New Republic, King Features Syndicate and the Public Broadcasting Service. But he was best known for his books and documentaries.
He was in Vietnam in 1959, when the first U.S. advisers were killed, and lingered long after the guns fell silent, talking to fighters, villagers, refugees, North and South Vietnamese political and military leaders, the French and the Americans, researching a people and a war that had been little understood.
The result was the 750-page book “Vietnam: A History," published in 1983, and its companion, a 13-hour PBS documentary, “Vietnam: A Television History." Unlike many books and films on Vietnam in the 1960s and ’70s and the nightly newscasts that focused primarily on America’s role and its consequences at home and abroad, Karnow addressed all sides of the conflict and traced Vietnam’s culture and history.
“Vietnam: A History" was widely praised and a best-seller. The documentary, with Karnow as chief correspondent, was at the time the most successful ever produced by public television, viewed by an average of nearly 10 million people a night through 13 episodes. It won six Emmy Awards, as well as Peabody, Polk and duPont-Columbia awards.
Six years later, Karnow delivered his second comprehensive book and television examination of a Southeast Asian nation. The book, “In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines" (1989), was a panorama of centuries of Filipino life under Spanish and American colonial rule, followed by independence under sometimes corrupt U.S.-backed leaders. It won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for history.
Narrated by Karnow, the three-part PBS documentary “The U.S. and the Philippines: In Our Image" traced America’s paternalistic colonial rule in the Philippines, the shared suffering of Filipinos and Americans under a cruel Japanese occupation in World War II, and Manila’s postwar independence under regimes nominally democratic but repressive, corrupt or indifferent to the miseries of its people.
Karnow also wrote “Mao and China: From Revolution to Revolution" (1972) and was a co-author of or contributor to books based on his years in Asia, including “Asian-Americans in Transition" (1992), “Passage to Vietnam" (1994), “Mekong" (1995) and “Historical Atlas of the Vietnam War" (1995).
Early in his career he lived in Paris for a decade, and in 1997 he published a memoir, “Paris in the Fifties." A nostalgic reporter’s notebook of life among the cafe philosophers, berated musicians and pseudo-revolutionary artistes, it danced with digressions about taxes, restaurants, the guillotine, Hemingway, Charles de Gaulle and the Devil’s Island penal colony.
In its range, learning and appetite for fun, Bernard Kalb, the former CBS reporter and Karnow’s friend since Vietnam, told The Associated Press in 2009, the memoir was vintage Karnow.
“Stanley has a great line about how being a journalist is like being an adolescent all your life," he said.
Stanley Karnow was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Feb. 4, 1925, the son of Harry and Henriette Koeppel Karnow. He grew up in a city with more than a dozen daily newspapers and decided early that he wanted to become a reporter. He served in the Army Air Forces in World War II. After graduating from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in 1947, he sailed for France, intending to spend the summer. He stayed for a decade.
Karnow married Claude Sarraute in 1948. They were divorced in 1955. In 1959, he married Annette Kline. They had two children, Michael and Catherine, who survive him, along with a stepson, Curtis Karnow, and two grandchildren. His second wife died in 2009.